FOR ages, it was just a myth; soon, it may be just a memory. The okapi, the "forest giraffe" from the Congo -- that gentle, fascinating beast known to Western science only since 1901 -- is now threatened with extinction.
War, illegal hunting and habitat destruction are going to do for it, as revealed in the latest annual update of the Red List of threatened species, compiled by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
The IUCN has now closely assessed the conservation status of 71,576 living things, and extinction is in prospect for no fewer than 21,286 of them -- 30pc. Of these, the okapi stands out for having jumped two ranks of the IUCN threat categories at one go, in the 2013 update, from "near threatened" to "endangered".
The alert about the okapi follows a new assessment of its population in its only home, the rainforests of the eastern side of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. For nearly 20 years, this region has been one of the most dangerous places on earth, for humans and for animals alike, ever since the 1994 Hutu-Tutsi genocide in Rwanda spilled over the border into the DRC and sparked continuous conflict between the government and a shifting assortment of rebel groups.
Rebels in the forests are hunting okapis steadily and their numbers are tumbling; there are thought to be far fewer than the last assessment of 35,000.
It was sometimes thought of as a mythical creature and referred to as 'the African unicorn', but its true nature was discovered by a British colonial administrator Sir Harry Johnston (the source of the okapi's scientific name) who got hold of a skin and a skull in 1901, and sent them back to London.
There, it was established that it was to the giraffe, and not the unicorn family, that the beast truly belonged.(© Independent News Service)